A spin-off project from the actor’s recent role as Nelson Mandela in Long Walk To Freedom, Idris Elba Presents mi Mandela offers an intriguing cross-cultural collaboration between British and South African musicians that helps to shrink further the ever-diminishing space separating cultures.
As singer Thabo claims in “Hold On”, “These walls are just make-believe/They’ll cause you to doubt your dreams”: he’s singing about Robben Island, but the principle extends into the present day, in the same way that Shaun Escoffery’s impassioned celebration of his own multi-faceted character in “So Many People” expands to express the broader issue of emancipation: “We’re singing freedom songs, we are a billion strong.”
Elba’s co-producer on most tracks is Mr Hudson, and together they’ve created a series of gentle, catchy shuffles stippled with balofon and marimba, cello and horns, such as the Mumford-composed “Home” that provides a duet platform for Thandiswa Mazwai and Maverick Sabre, and “mi Mandela” itself, over which Elba reflects self-deprecatingly on his experiences playing Mandela – who, amusingly, had no idea who the actor was. But some of the best tracks come from other sources. “Aero Mathata”, for instance, opens the album with what resembles a kind of South African dubstep groove by Aero Manyelo, fronted by veteran singers The Mahotella Queens. Frisky and infectious, it’s a marvellous alliance of ancient and modern – as too is “Thank You For Freedom”, which blends Mash-O’s beats with gospel choir, jazz trumpet, thumb-piano and perky soukous guitars, percolating behind the gruff loquacity of Phuzekhemisi, a sort of local cross between Howlin’ Wolf and Big Youth.
James Blake’s electric piano underpins Nothembi Mkhewebane’s guitar groove to “Nothembi Jam”, and George The Poet’s “One” focuses on the need to ally personal drive to collective struggle: “What I have dared to achieve, I am prepared to receive”.